On Women’s Month and Cities

This month is “Women’s month” in South Africa. The month confuses me a bit, largely because the content generated during this time seems to shift further and further each year from the issues relevant to the original intent: commemoration of the women who marched on 9th of August 1956. In a country with such extreme rates of gender violence, it is however not surprising that gender equality, and the safety of women and girls, becomes a common theme in a month called “women’s month”.

Like every August, there have been articles published lamenting the lack of progress in women’s rights, and questioning the efficacy of (often-commodified) celebrations in advancing gender equality, not to mention the usefulness of poorly constructed campaigns (Bic, Marie Claire) in holding a mirror up to just how far we still have to go.

This month also comes with all sorts of special moments — like men in meetings following sexist remarks with disclaimers like “I don’t mean to be sexist during Women’s Month”. I mean, he could have held out for the short period of “mysoginy as usual” that sits between Women’s Month and the start of “16 days of activism against gender based violence”.

Despite all this, Women’s Month does offer a chance for men and women to talk about the realities of gender inequality, and perhaps change some mindsets and practices along the way.

One such conversation is taking place between a group of women over on the Future Cape Town blog. I was asked, alongside a number of inspiring female urbanists, to contribute to this conversation. You can read the final article here.

The exercise of sitting down and reflecting on 3 simple questions sent to me by the FCT team was a useful one for my own reflection, I’ve placed my original full response below for those interested. As always, I reserve my right to change my opinion, and welcome constructive challenges to do so.

FCT Q1: What kind of urban intervention related to public transport would help create safer space for women commuting on a regular basis?

I want to caution up front that urban interventions have limited potential in our context.

I am convinced that issues of gender-based crime, specifically sexual harassment in public spaces, and violent crimes against girls and women, cannot be solved through urban planning and urban design alone. These are complex issues that require a mix of interventions at all levels of society.

When focusing on urban interventions specifically, there are scales of intervention. I enjoy PPS “Power of Ten” principle as an articulation of this. At the metro-region scale, improving our spatial form to reduce travel times and minimise the need to be walking to a public transport interchange in the dark is important — and needless to say for many socio-economic reasons that extend beyond safety and into the realm of childhood development and household disposable income and so on. At the sub-metro scale, we need a network of nodes that offer social and economic amenity, connected by public transport and public spaces. At the local scale, improved lighting, way finding, and a good mix of uses to attract people at all hours can go a long way to reduce opportunistic crime. In our context, this can mean different things in different areas, and our interventions need to be context sensitive — for example, in informal settlements the location and surrounding amenity of spaza shops, and of toilets, becomes more critical than, say, designing side walks with the use of prams in mind.

FCT Q2: What are your initial thoughts about the measures taken already by the City of Cape Town and UN Women Safe Cities Global Initiatives and what would you change?

I don’t know enough about this specific project to comment definitively, but certainly credit is due to the City of Cape Town for asking critical questions about the City’s and communities’ roles in creating safer places.

I hope that this will not be left as an experimental pilot, but that innovations and successes are integrated throughout the City’s work in community safety, public space management and public transport services.

Safety is a common concern that gets expressed when researching barriers to modal shift (from private vehicle to public transport) amongst middle-income commuters, — that is, safety not just on public transport, but also along access routes.

I am appreciative of the City for starting this pilot in an area where commuters mostly do not have a choice but to use public transport, and challenge more affluent communities to partner amongst themselves and with the City to improve access routes and encourage modal shift.

(There’s a lot that can be said about the sustainability, congestion and social cohesion reasons why modal shift is important, beyond the scope of this article).

FCT Q3: How would you revisit communal space in your city centre to optimize safety for women?

About 18 months ago, I was forced to adapt my own behaviour after being repeatedly harassed in an increasingly threatening manner by two specific individuals, who by my evening commute were always drunk (another pointer that urban design cannot alone solve our issues). Due to living in Obs and working in town, I have the luxury of a choice of modes, and shifted from taxi to train for my evening commute.

Not everyone has this luxury of options.

To not talk about class, race, sexuality, age and ability in this context would be missing an important part of this issue — insecurity and rights intersect on these axes along with gender.

The very “public” nature of public space or transport is that it makes you visible.

This automatically makes you vulnerable, and the more different you are to the patriarchal, ablest, heteronormative, cisnormative etc cultural power houses and norms, the more vulnerable in these spaces you are. The more privileged you are along these axes, the more choices you are likely to have about where and how to move.

Beyond the privilege of choice, I also feel comfortable holding hands or kissing my partner in public* because our heteronormative relationship means that I won’t attract stares, jeers, or worse forms of harassment or attack. That is a privilege that not all enjoy. Similarly, a physically impaired black woman is arguably at far greater risk and discomfort than I am in a public space. A blind man living in an informal settlement where he must navigate to and from toilets at night is also at significant risk — arguably his class and disability reduce his access to a safe environment far more than my gender does as an able-bodied, wealthy white woman. (Side note: a great exercise for checking your privilege.)

A nanny might be the most regular user of a suburban park, but is excluded from the re-design planning meetings which take place after-hours to accommodate rate payers of the area.

In this context, engineering and design are not a-political. What this means is that the process of planning itself needs to start to reflect a diversity of voices.

On a basic level, participatory planning can help to introduce users to one another, and build a community of recognisable faces and friends looking out for one another.

On a higher level, a diversity of voices in the planning process can help to raise awareness about the experiences of others in shared spaces, challenge behaviours and beliefs that contribute to vulnerability, and design spaces that pre-figure what a more inclusive and tolerant society may feel like.

Open Streets Cape Town is an example of an organisation doing work to demonstrate what streets that embody respect for all can be like, through experiential and demonstrative learning (on the Open Streets days, during the Talking Streets events, and through other community meetings in the build-up to each).

Finally, there is something to be said about how design implies blame and responsibility.

One of my favourite blog posts on pedestrian safety articulates this concept very well. It says: “even the seemingly most normal safety precautions in fact represent of a set of values on who has the responsibility to take care to prevent harm and who has the right to go about their business without obstruction… As you can see if you look at a busy urban road today, emphasising the need to take precautionary measures is a dangerous symptom of the broader set of attitudes towards where rights and responsibilities lie. What we need to do is drop our tampon daggers and work together on moving towards a culture in which nobody ever questions the rights of women to do just as they wish, without having to structure their lives around the fear of those that might harm them.”

To this point, I ask, what message are we sending when we close public ablutions at 5pm (or don’t even offer public ablutions in the first place)? Does it signal to women that they do not have the right to be outdoors at certain periods of time, or for certain lengths of time? “Be transient in public space, at most”, it tells me. Parks with low/no fences and many access points sends a message that you are welcome and encouraged to be in the space, whereas a park with high fences signals to me that I am taking a risk, that by entering I am somehow “fair game” for crime. Over time, this feeds in to a vicious cycle of less use of public space, and more vulnerability to be there (almost) alone.

Are we considering these factors when we make decisions about our cities, so that by the time next August comes around, there have been at least some improvements?

*PPS’s Fred Kent says the markers of a good space are people taking their shoes off, or stopping to kiss. Perhaps these are also markers of a good society.

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